The Eye-Opening Experience of Tokyo’s Gen Yamamoto Bar
Gen Yamamoto is one of Tokyo’s most intimate bars, and it’s also the name of the bar’s owner and sole bartender. On a recent visit, Liv Fleischhacker sampled six original and ingenious Gen Yamamoto cocktails.
Ask any self-respecting barfly and they’ll tell you: when in Tokyo, visit Gen Yamamoto. And so I did, and left with so much more than just a light buzz after six cocktails. A space that questions the construct of the bar but also might see people leaving disappointed. What follows is a reflection of a deeply intimate bar visit.
The eponymous Gen Yamamoto runs his bar from Tuesday to Sunday. The large Japanese oak counter accommodates eight people per seating, in four sessions per night. Yamamoto worked in countless bars in New York, New Jersey, and Tokyo before opening his own place five years ago. He laughingly admits that he opened the rather unconventional bar because he didn’t enjoy classic Japanese bars, even though that is where he was trained more than a decade ago.
Gen Yamamoto: The Bartender and the Bar
At Gen Yamamoto, visitors book a ‘sitting’ (it’s wise to do this a month ahead of time) and completely leave themselves in the hands of the bartender. The only choice you have to make is between menus of four or six omakase (chef’s choice) cocktails. Ingredients are fresh and change on a daily basis.
Truly, the set up feels more like a high-end restaurant than a bar. Interior design is on the minimalist side: beautiful wood, a pop of fresh flowers that sensibly do not omit any scent, and some glittering glassware. The sparse wooden shelves showcase eight bottles and Yamamoto’s white jacket makes a promise of formality that he deliberately doesn’t live up to. For a Japanese bartender, Yamamoto is chatty and almost casual, his work is clean but not compulsively so – professional yet personable.
When seated in a small space, surrounded by only six others, atmosphere is key. It’s a tricky game, other reviews have said that an air of “hushed reverence” accompanied their visits. It’s certainly not a rowdy atmosphere. Unfortunately for me and my friend, we happened to sit next to two extremely boisterous gin importers, proudly humble-bragging about the number of Michelin-starred restaurants they’ve managed to visit in their short time in Tokyo. While there’s some entertainment to be had from making fun of them in your head – not to mention at the izakaya (neighborhood bar) afterwards – this is the downside to a small space. You cannot escape your drinking partners, and if they suck, that sucks for you.
Omakase, Oh My God!
Yamamoto, for his part, easily manages to tune out the stories he must have heard a million times and focuses on the first of six cocktails, served on a slate tablet that is decorated with a sole bloom. Prepared using distilled rice sake, kiwifruit, and the roasted soybean powder that’s used on warabimochi, it is a shockingly light drink and eases the visitor into the rest of the menu. Refreshing, yet nutty enough to hold our interest, it is like an extremely healthy smoothie, with a sake finish. The kiwifruit adds a surprisingly delightful texture.
Strawberries have become a bit of a theme throughout our five weeks in Japan, and they make an appearance in drink number two. Yamamoto muddles the fresh strawberries in one of his beautiful copper shakers and the whole room is perfumed with the smell of spring. Yamamoto uses a light, smooth sake and, employing a thermometer and copper pan, lightly warms the concoction to “open up the flavors.” The drink is topped with a dollop of softly whipped cream. A pleasant sake burn gives a nice edge to the strawberry’s intense fruitiness and a lovely finish, which is helped by the whipped cream. The second drink is definitely stronger than the first and leaves you with that specific, sake-induced, whole-body buzz.
I perk up even more when I see what Yamamoto pulls out for drink number three: a huge, incredibly juicy looking tomato. The way the tomato is muddled is almost sexual, ripe fruit spilling over the strainer, the sound the glass muddler makes when it hits that specific spot between thin, vegetal skin and sweet fruit juice. Yamamoto deftly mixes it with Lone Wolf gin, which is distilled using Scottish barley and wheat with a nice addition of lavender, and tops the cocktail with green sencha tea. Every single ice cube is picked with precision. The tomato drink is beautifully pink-hued, smells like summer, and perfectly utilizes the gin’s lavender. It whets your appetite, I could easily guzzle a whole pitcher of this come July.
The Halfway Point
We’re now halfway through our menu and I’m feeling only the tiniest bit tipsy. Yamamoto has a light hand when pouring alcohol – sensible when serving six cocktails. Drink number four contains pomelo juice, freshly grated wasabi, and sparkling sake. The drink seems larger than life, the carbonation spreads the wasabi’s spiciness around the mouth like a fiery wave. It is tart and yeasty. An incredible cocktail with a lot of savory notes that remind me of natural wine and would do well on a spring evening, sitting on a porch, enjoying a crunchy salad with some freshly baked sourdough.
The drink that follows, number five, is my least favorite. It is made from fava beans, koji malt, milk, and peppercorn leaf. It has a nice heft to it thanks to the koji malt, and the peppercorn leaf is spicy with citrus notes. A tad too earthy, too smooth due to the milk, and too vegetal. Especially compared with the spectacular drinks we had before, this one falls flat.
But just as I’m losing heart, our sixth and last drink of the evening – or rather afternoon, since it’s barely 4.30pm – knocks it out of the park. Yamamoto employs Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt 12, umeboshi plum and its blossom, and cubed daikon for this perfectly balanced cocktail that is simultaneously sweet and sour with a solid body from the malt. It is like a generous hug at the fire after coming in from the cold. This is the drink I will dream of when I’m back home in Berlin. Notes of honey that feel maternal and loving and showcase the true craftsmanship and hospitality that is Gen Yamamoto.
What is a Bar?
After one and a half hours, we stumble back out into the daylight, it’s raining and we’re left feeling slightly confused as to what we just experienced. I’m not sure ‘bar’ truly describes Gen Yamamoto, rather it’s an exploration of seasonal ingredients and hospitality. Visitors looking for a place to get drunk are definitely at the wrong address. To enjoy the experience you have to be willing to fully surrender and leave your preconceived notions at the door.
Then again, what is a bar? A space where you go to after work to bitch about your life? A second living room where you run into friends? A place that challenges you and keeps your taste buds on their toes? I don’t know the answer. We spent €58 at Gen Yamamoto – a sum that could easily carry me through an entire night in Berlin’s best bars. And yet, I’m happy to have spent that much on this experience.
Those six cocktails will forever remain a reference point for what a few fresh ingredients and distilled spirits can be turned into by the hands of a master craftsman. The visit leaves me with more questions than answers, and I think that’s a good thing. Perhaps this is not the place for those seeking definitive truths. If however, you are up for a bit of childlike wonder and a one-of-a-kind bar experience, then do not miss out on Gen Yamamoto.
Foto: Liv Fleischhacker